Spring 2008 T-shirt Trends: Selling through selection and service

Add Some Variety

Variety is not only the spice of life—it’s also a key ingredient to a successful cart or kiosk T-shirt business.

“It’s important to have a variety of T-shirts,” says Kevin Stephens, who, along with his wife, Angela, co-owns By God’s Design, a cart offering T-shirts and other products with religious themes in Westfield South County Mall in St. Louis, MO. “The more [customers have] to choose from, the better. You get repeat customers that way. With variety, they come back to see new T-shirts.”

imageHasan Sultan, owner of Citicolors, a cart and an inline store in Queens Center Mall in Elmhurst, NJ, agrees that having a large selection of merchandise is crucial. “Customers specifically tell me that we have the biggest collection,” says Sultan, who creates T-shirts emblazoned with DC Comics, rock bands, Marvel, TV show and Disney images, among others. “We have what the customers are looking for.”

Sultan benefits from having two retail operations in the same shopping center: a cart and an inline store. Although he offers the same core products in both locations, the inline store has a wider selection. The cart funnels customers to the inline store, where he has customizing equipment set up. There he can accommodate consumers who want names, pictures or designs added to their T-shirts. Between the two locations, he captures the quick-hit impulse sales and the customers who want to design their own, which more customers are opting for each year.

Connect with shoppers

imageAccording to the NPD Group, a market researcher based in Port Washington, NY, the US T-shirt market totaled more than $22 billion in 2006, up 8.4 percent from the prior year. Women’s T-shirt sales fared better than men’s, rising 11 percent in 2006 compared to men’s T-shirts up less than four percent.

For decades a fashion staple for men and women, kids and adults, T-shirts have enjoyed solid sales from carts and kiosks in large part because tees can be priced right for impulse sales and they appeal to a wide range of customers. Add to that a location in the middle of mall or airport foot traffic, where retailers can show off their latest designs front-and-center, and the sales have followed.

But as every savvy retailer knows, today’s shoppers want the products they buy to be all about them—their individuality, sense of humor or sense of style. No surprise, then, that T-shirt customization is big, along with off-the-shelf designs that speak to specific shoppers’ interests, from rock band tees to Christian-themed shirts to “green tees” for the increasing number of shoppers who want to look great while lending Mother Nature a hand.

Andreea Ayers says shoppers are more than ready to spend on T-shirts they can connect with on a personal level, whether that means identifying with a snappy saying on a tee, or choosing a T-shirt because it’s made with eco-friendly materials—or both. Ayers is founder of Boulder, CO-based wholesaler Tees for Change, which offers T-shirts for women, bearing such phrases as “Seek Balance” and “Choose Happiness.” In addition to the inspirational sayings, the tees are made of organic cotton and bamboo, which eco-conscious consumers are flocking to in ever-increasing numbers.

imageIn fact, sales of organic cotton products increased to $583 million in 2005, more than doubling from $245 million in 2001, according to the Organic Exchange, an Oakland, CA, non-profit that promotes organic agriculture. The group expects organic cotton sales to top $2.6 billion by the end of 2008. Ayers is catching the organics wave at just the right time—with an inspirational line shoppers are drawn to, to boot.

Shoppers “buy the T-shirts for the phrases, but get really excited about the organic cotton,” she says. When shoppers get excited about your product, the register starts ringing. Ayers launched Tees for Change in January ’07 and within 12 months her sales increased 10-fold.

Make ’em smile

A nearly sure-fire way to make a personal connection with consumers is through humor, says Lorri Carter, director of product development for Kerusso, Inc., a wholesaler of Christian apparel based in Berryville, AR that has a start-up package for cart and kiosk operators (with more than two dozen currently in operation). “T-shirts that have messages that make the reader laugh are a lot of fun to wear, plus they make it easy to strike up a conversation,” Carter says. “Humor is a T-shirt staple.” But for Kerusso, “humorous” doesn’t mean “crude.”

“We have family-friendly, faith-based products which gives the mall a good image,” says Kerusso’s specialty retail manager, Zsolt Gomory. The company has a start-up package for carts and kiosks that costs about $5,000 including initial inventory—mostly T-shirts but also some hats, some long-sleeve items, some hooded sweatshirts and some jewelry. Kerusso, which supplies several dozen independent cart, kiosk and inline operators across the country, also offers its retailers a great deal of frontline advice.

“We help the owners price the T-shirts, we help them decide on a cart name and we show them how to look for the right employees, among other things,” Gomory says. “We make sure they have all their ducks in a row.” With revenues of more than $11 million in 2007, the company knows what it takes to retail its products.

imageThe Stephenses, who launched their By God’s Design cart in May 2007 featuring Kerusso products, say they found success by filling a void in their area of St. Louis. “Several Christian book stores had closed around here, so to have Christian T-shirts was an advantage,” Kevin Stephens says. Price points range from $9.99 for a toddler tee to $16.99 for adult sizes.

Adam Solo, president of The T-shirt Diner, an inline retailer and franchisor in Tampa, FL, also sells a significant amount of humorous tees at his two company-owned Florida inlines in Westshore Plaza Mall in Tampa and Brandon Towncenter in Brandon. He sells T-shirts for women, men, children, babies and pets starting $19, with a lot of his customers opting for the humorous tees over anything else.

“One of our stock designs is the T-shirts of each of the 50 states and the funny sayings for each state,” says Solo, adding: “The most risqué T-shirts sell well.” Solo notes that he doesn’t carry any shirts with obscene language because his stores are located in shopping centers. “We are in malls and we get a lot of kids in the stores,” he says.

Off-the-shelf humorous T-shirt designs are big sellers at The T-shirt Diner, but they’re only half the story. In addition to stocking 500 “off-the-wall” stock shirts, the stores specialize in a variety of custom jobs, including screen printing, direct-to-garment printing, vinyl, flock, metallics and “more novelty designs than anyone in the market.” Every day store employees work with dozens of customers to develop their own original T-shirt designs, which creates a one-of-a-kind shopping experience and a one-of-a-kind T-shirt.

The concept has been so popular that The T-shirt Diner recently started franchising and now has two inline franchisees, one in Florida’s Sarasota Square Mall and one in Las Vegas’s bustling Fashion Show. Fifteen more franchises are planned for 2008. “We have a waiting list of about 300 people,” Solo says. Selling custom T-shirts is “an old idea that, with the newest technologies, has a new twist to it.”

Customize it to sell

imageCanadian specialty retail entrepreneur Ali Kamal owns a half-dozen carts and kiosks operating under the name Generation, plus two Rock On inline stores, with his headquarters in Pickering, Ontario. He started by selling off-the-shelf tees on carts, but then expanded in several ways. After countless customer requests for music- and entertainment-related items he decided to launch two Rock On inline stores that focus on rock ‘n roll T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs and fashion accessories such as belt buckles and jewelry.

On Kamal’s Generation carts and kiosks he expanded by offering custom printing. “I wanted to bring in something extra” that would catch the shopper’s eye, he says. Thanks to a selection of free images he can download online, “whatever a customer wants, we can usually provide it,” he says, adding that customization has boosted his sales between 30 and 35 percent.

“Customizing is pretty much all we do,” says Teresa Diaz, who with her husband, Carlos, co-owns Apparel Designs by Soulmates, a kiosk at the Orlando International Airport in Orlando, FL. Using a heat press to apply rhinestones, Diaz says that she can customize items such as T-shirts, tank tops, jean jackets, purses and gloves on the spot in two to four minutes. The system “works well in an airport where people are in a hurry,” she says.

Customers can choose from 30 designs such as a butterfly, an eagle or a flamingo and from sayings like “Drama Queen” or “Super Mom” or come up with their own phrases. Retail prices range from a children’s T-shirt at $14.50 to an adult long-sleeved T-shirt at $28.

imageCustomization also is a key to success of Common Ground Import & Export, LLC, doing business as Florida T-shirts Plus in Lake Buena Vista, FL. The company has three kiosks in the Orlando area and a factory in Windermere, FL. The kiosks are outfitted with a single-head embroidery machine for on-site embroidery.

“If anyone orders a quantity under 12, they are done one at a time at the store,” says David Mondragon, CEO of Common Ground Import & Export, LLC. “With more than 12 we go to the factory to make them.”

Florida T-shirts Plus offers T-shirts, sweatshirts, sports caps and other items. The company has officially licensed items from the NFL, NBA, NCAA and MLB. Prices at the kiosks are usually $19.99 for hats and T-shirts.

“The retail and wholesale feed off of each other,” Mondragon says. “Fifty percent of sales for the company are retail, 50 percent are wholesale.” The kiosks, he adds, “give us more exposure” for the wholesale arm of the company.

Packaged to sell

imageSome T-shirt makers opt for simplicity in the actual T-shirt design, then go the extra mile in terms of packaging their products to fly off the shelves. Wholesaler Cherry Tee in Brooklyn, NY, for example, offers a collection of unadorned cotton T-shirts and gift sets that are beautifully packaged in buckets, totes, crates and jars. The line has been featured in consumer magazines including “O,” Real Simple and Vanity Fair.

Retailers love the packaging, too. “Because they’re in the buckets, crates, etc., they’re very easy to merchandise,” says Deborah Brener Zolan, the creative director of Cherry Tee. “There’s no folding or stacking of individual T-shirts, which can cause a messy looking environment.”

Multiple shirts are packaged together in gift sets, including “Tee Samplers” that look like Fruit-of-the-Month selections, a “Tote of Tees” that includes four styles of tees packed in a chic cotton canvas bucket tote and the newest gift item, the “Jam ‘n Tee Jar,” a vintage Mason jar filled with two Rainier Tissue tees and a cherry jelly treat.

“The concept of T-shirt gift sets is actually unique in the market and our packaging is very eye-catching and appealing,” Brener Zolan says. “It’s the packaging that draws the eye and then the great T-shirts that close the sale.” And keep the customers coming back for more.

image“We have customers who come back time after time to buy someone they love a unique gift for their birthday, or a great back-to-school gift, or to celebrate any number of life events. Our customers tell us our products are fun to give because they look so great. The T-shirts are fantastic and they’re wonderful quality, but it’s the packaging that gets noticed first.”

Make a statement

From simple styles to custom creations, from rock ‘n roll riffs to rockin’ organics—the bottom line for shoppers is that with a great T-shirt, “You can express yourself,” says Solo of The T-shirt Diner. Whatever that means for individual shoppers, retailers and their suppliers are happy to oblige with huge stock selections and endless customizing choices.

No matter which specific T-shirt trends emerge in the years to come, the category will continue to be a solid seller, Solo says, because “people have always enjoyed T-shirts—and they always will.”

FlagClothes: Patriotic T-shirts Stir Sales

“Our T-shirts are a nostalgic, vintage line of World War I and World War II images,” explains President Angie Haddock. “The T-shirts have such slogans as ‘Defense,’ ‘Victory’ and ‘Rosie, the Riveter.’ We’ve brought [these images] into the future with different designs, different backgrounds and different colors” to create stylish, 21st Century T-shirts that appeal to a wide range of women.

“Not only can middle-aged women wear them,” she says, “but younger girls like them because of the cool images. Younger women love the shirts just because of the cool graphics and the hip body styles that we offer them. And they get history lessons from their parents or grandparents on what the images mean. These images also provide another way to show support in the USA for those customers who may not want to wear the traditional red, white and blue.”

imageIn business since 1993, Haddock’s decision to manufacture patriotic clothing was the result of her frontlines retail experience. “When my husband and I started our business, we had retail shops in tourist locations and found that tourists from other countries wanted to bring something back that was American made and, if possible, from the location that they were visiting,” Haddock says.

The FlagClothes line had a humble beginning. “We founded our company with one jacket, The Flag Jacket. This stars-and-stripes jacket is made from white and red cotton bunting sewn together to form the stripes, and has large white embroidered stars on a navy field.

The jacket was extremely successful and hit the market at a time where the first Gulf War was wrapping up and the nation felt united and proud and wanted to show it. Our jacket was featured in many mail order catalogs such as Sharper Image, Hammacher Schlemmer as well as [stocked in] many tourist locations in all the major cities, including Walt Disney World and many high-end boutiques.”

Consumers aren’t the only ones who like the FlagClothes line. “Retailers love the way the colors merchandise off one another,” Haddock says. “It’s very appealing to the eye. Also, they are able to cross merchandise from the older generation all the way to the teens.”

imageWhen the FlagClothes line launched, “We made a vow that every product would be made in America,” she says. “To date, we’ve kept our vow and every one of our more than 300 products is made entirely in the USA.”

Customers find the Made in America provenance very appealing, Haddock says. “Our customer base is made up of proud, hard-working Americans who are teachers, fireman, policeman and union workers, to name a few. To these individuals, who really do make up the backbone of our society, it matters a great deal to them that when they put something on to represent their pride in their country, it’s made in the United States of America.”